Updated and Upgraded, but Still Jeep Through and Through
Republished: 05/10/2011 (Original Date: 05/12/2011)
Dan Frio, Staff Writer
The past decade has fostered much hand-wringing among Jeep enthusiasts about the brand's evolution. At one end of the model lineup, the Grand Cherokee aims upmarket at Land Rover, and at the other are pavement-friendly models pulled primarily by the (gasp) front wheels.
Jeep fans can be forgiven for thinking the badge that stood for toughness had gone soft trying to cover too many bases. Yet they can take solace in the enduring Wrangler, the brand's anchor. It remains an important vehicle for the company; last year it surpassed the Grand Cherokee as the brand's top seller. Simple transportation with all-terrain capability still sells.
No wonder, then, that a four-door Wrangler is such a good idea. You wonder why it took until 2007 for Jeep to come up with one. After all, Jeep offered four doors on many of its iconic all-roaders like the Wagoneer, not to mention the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. The 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon not only opens up more room for five passengers, it makes some concessions to modern-day convenience, including navigation, Bluetooth, a nice audio system, even heated leather seats. And in its steadfast refusal to embrace whimsical styling trends or compromised mobility, the Wrangler Unlimited has actually expanded the unique niche of the traditional Wrangler.
Competitors like the Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser also offer impressive off-road function and are better suited to everyday detail. But the Wrangler beats them both with the scope of its abilities. Quite simply, nothing offers the ability to climb rocks, ford streams, clamber over fallen timber and even ride topless (and doorless) under a jungle canopy quite like the four-door Wrangler Unlimited.
The 3.8-liter V6 in the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited makes 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. It delivers its power lazily, which is fine for off-road traction but pretty frustrating on pavement. Mashing the throttle causes the automatic transmission to downshift and then the V6 zings to 5,000 rpm with a rasp and wail, worsening its already dismal fuel economy of 15 city/19 highway mpg. It's not pleasant mechanical music, lacking the purposeful rumble of the Wrangler's 4.0-liter inline-6 of years ago. And you'll need to keep stabbing that throttle pedal, because the automatic transmission has only four gears with which to sustain forward momentum, so it's easy to find yourself in a limbo of mushy throttle response.
In Edmunds performance testing, the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon hauls its 4,575 pounds to 60 mph from a standstill in 11.2 seconds. This is another reason we prefer the Wrangler Unlimited with its standard six-speed manual gearbox, which offers better performance overall than the old-fashioned four-speed automatic at the price of only a little less convenience. Jeeps and manuals go well together anyway, especially if you plan any semi-serious off-roading.
If you do, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is one of the best-gunned tanks in service. It's built on a boxed body-on-chassis frame with Jeep's toughest axle — the Dana 44 — front and rear, coil springs and gas-filled shocks at all four corners. The Rubicon edition also offers Jeep's best four-wheel-drive system, anchored by a two-speed transfer case with a low-gear ratio that allows the Rubicon to creep up inclines (aided by hill start assist) and pick its way down declines at such low, irresistible speed that you feel as if you're defying gravity.
For swinging around larger obstacles, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon lets the driver electronically lock the front and rear axles, and also disconnect the front sway bar for greater suspension travel and wheel movement. Not that you'll need all that much more room to move; the Wrangler Unlimited offers 10.2 inches of ground clearance — making it a truck you literally hop into — and a nearly 45-degree approach angle for beginning those steep ascents.
The Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon features four-wheel disc brakes, but it's still a squirrely mass to halt. In Edmunds brake testing, the Wrangler stopped from 60 mph in 138 feet, a longer distance than the Xterra needs. The FJ Cruiser, which weighs 500 pounds less, stops 15 feet shorter.
Getting into the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon almost requires climbing ropes and pitons, but once in, you're welcomed by a modern and comfortable environment that includes heated leather seats — an unexpected amenity in a hard-core trail-runner. The elevated seating position lets you survey the moonscape ahead, although you don't worry a bit about what lies ahead.
There's another modern element present in the cabin: noise. Wind noise, road noise, tire noise — the Wrangler Unlimited lets in plenty of it, despite measures by Jeep engineers to quiet things down, such as including plenty of acoustic insulation on the underside of the hood. The Unlimited Rubicon's big BF Goodrich off-road tires certainly contribute to the racket, and they're overkill for use around town. If you need your Jeep daily and your heart is set on the Rubicon's ample outdoor skill set, we'd recommend investing in a separate set of wheels and all-terrain tires.
But ultimately, cats chase mice and Wranglers make noise. Those seeking a quiet Jeep can vindicate the hand-wringers by opting for a Compass or Grand Cherokee.
Fun and freedom of movement form the core of the Wrangler's values, even if this means the freedom to fall out from its sides. Like Wranglers past, the Unlimited Rubicon offers removable doors. A detachable wiring harness enables power windows and locks when doors are installed. But be careful in parking lots and on grades, because the lightweight doors swing freely, since they're restrained only by straps.
The swinging tailgate also requires caution when used in close quarters, and unfortunately needs to be opened for the hardtop's rear hatch window to open and clear the spare tire.
Inside, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon receives modern coverings and trim materials on the dash, doors and consoles, but the controls are still core Jeep — big thumb switches and knobs, chunky circular vents, thick gear selectors. Contemporary touches also include touchscreen navigation, an Infinity audio system and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. Controls on the back of the steering wheel allow restless index fingers to shuffle through songs and stations and change the volume — which you'll be doing plenty as speeds and road surfaces change.
The 2011 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited offers the optional Freedom Top, a three-piece modular hard shell roof (the Sunrider soft top is standard). The main piece enclosing the rear seat and cargo area requires a few friends to help lift and remove or replace it, but for times when you just want a little sun, one person can easily remove the two split-targa panels covering driver and passenger.
The biggest advantage of a four-door Wrangler, however, is that not only is it easy for rear-seat passengers to climb in and out, but they're also treated like rear-seat passengers. Ample leg- and headroom make backseat passage a comfortable, not just tolerable, arrangement. And although you won't find many cupholders and the door panels offer only small net pockets, the Wrangler Unlimited opens up with more than 80 cubic feet of cargo space with its rear seats folded, enough for two people to pack nearly anything needed for adventures in the mountains, sea, or both.
Design/Fit and Finish
Even with a longer wheelbase and four doors, the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited still bears all the hallmarks of its predecessors — distinctive wheel arches, square angles, round headlamps and a seven-slot grille. Unlike the Grand Cherokee, which evolved into a softer shape and is only now reverting to stronger shoulders and jowls, there's no mistaking the Wrangler Unlimited's lineage.
The Rubicon's interior leather adds a touch of luxury for those who'll forge no farther than the city's neglected infrastructure, yet appears hardy enough to hold up to the demands of regular off-roaders.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you're looking for a dual-duty vehicle, there are better. The noisy cabin isn't so much of a deal-breaker if you're considering a Wrangler in the first place. But the limited fuel economy will hit you where it hurts most, particularly in mixed driving. That said, the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon can make even the urban jungle seem tolerable, and it's ready and able when you need to get off the pavement. It's not the ideal ride for ski adventures and it's not powerful enough for towing, but it makes even a trip to the market feel like an adventure.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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